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19 August 2014

Peter Sculthorpe: a reflection on his music and its context

Peter Sculthorpe Image: Peter Sculthorpe  
© Bridget Elliot

Composer John Peterson, who has just published a book about Peter Sculthorpe's music and worked for years as his music assistant, writes about Sculthorpe's major works and the development of his compositional voice, from student years through 'Irkanda' and 'Sun Music' periods, to mature landmark works such as Mangrove, Kakadu, and, finally, the late string quartets and Requiem.

The death of Peter Sculthorpe on 08 August, 2014, deeply affected all who knew him. The individuality of his musical output over a long and highly distinguished career meant that even those who only knew him through his music were touched by the news. For many others who knew him as a friend, teacher, and mentor, or often all of these at once, recognised that the sincerity and generosity that Peter Sculthorpe brought to their particular relationship with him had resonated in their lives in a multitude of different ways. His influence on Australian music has been enormous, and his impact on the people with whom he came into close contact has been, and will remain, long-lasting and unforgettable.

For many, his music came to represent Australia, its people, and its landscape and, while some may dispute whether or not one style of music or the work of one composer alone can stand as representative of Australia as a whole, there can be no doubt that Sculthorpe's aesthetic choices have always been inspired primarily by the landscape, the people (both Indigenous and non-Indigenous), and the Indigenous culture of this country. In the first part of the twenty-first century, though, you are far less likely to find composers who are concerned with expressing their own identity as 'Australian' composers, or who even try to represent the Australian experience, in the same way as Peter Sculthorpe. There are many reasons for this, and they needn't necessarily be discussed here, but we should not forget the significance of Sculthorpe's music and its place in historical context.

We should remember, for example, that elements of Sculthorpe's mature compositional style were first established in the mid-to-late 1950s, at a time when composers, poets, authors, and artists were all actively seeking to express a distinctly 'Australian' identity in their art. The roots of this, in terms of music, can be found earlier in the twentieth century, especially in the post-World War I period. Melbourne musicologist Henry Tate (1873-1926), in his article 'Australian Musical Possibilities' (1924), recommended the investigation of bird-calls and of Indigenous melodies and rhythms as potential musical resources for the composer. Tate was also an advocate of the view that '…Australia must have composers who will study their own country, and aim to achieve in their music an inherent distinction that will arouse interest in it as Australian music'. A similar search for an Australian identity emerged in literary circles in the mid-1930s with the Jindyworobak movement, a group of poets and writers led by Rex Ingamells (1913-1955) who recognised that the basis of a recognisably Australian literary culture lay in the overt expression of a relationship with not only the landscape but also the history and traditions of both the Indigenous and non-Indigenous populations.

Inevitably, the essence of the Jindyworobak movement, if not its complete ideology, had an effect on the other art forms. Sculthorpe was not the first composer, however, to try to achieve this aim of creating an 'Australian' identity in music. Composers such as Clive Douglas (1903-1977) and John Antill (1904-1986), for example, had already developed strong interests in the landscape and in Aboriginal culture. Douglas also collected Indigenous melodies and sometimes adapted them for use in his own compositions, while Antill incorporated the Aboriginal bull-roarer into his evocative and heavily rhythmic score for the ballet Corroboree (1946).

Although Sculthorpe began writing music at an early age, most of these works, written as a schoolboy or soon after he arrived at the Conservatorium of Music in Melbourne in 1947, are largely suffused with a sense of British pastoralism. During his time at the Conservatorium, he became increasingly aware of local developments in composition. When James Penberthy (1917-1999), a fellow composition student at the time, wrote a score based on Aboriginal legends, it inspired Sculthorpe to investigate Indigenous music and culture. Of other music and other composers, Gustav Mahler and Ernest Bloch were early favourites, while upon hearing music written by Adelaide-born composer Margaret Sutherland (1897-1984) for the first time in 1948 he remarked, '… I felt this was my first encounter with a truly original and Australian voice'.

Aspects of Sculthorpe's own distinct compositional voice begin to assert themselves consistently in the 1950s. From that point onwards his musical output is often categorised into periods, where the influences from diverse sources can be heard to have had an impact on his musical development. The music of the 'Irkanda' period, so named because of the series of works that all bear that title, lasts from around 1955 to 1965, and is notable for its reliance on dissonant intervals, especially the semitone but also tritone, and major 7th intervals, in his melodic and harmonic constructs. The music is never atonal nor completely dodecaphonic - contemporary compositional styles with which he may have flirted but never openly embraced - and while the music is often stark and somewhat terse, and steeped in a melancholic air, there are undeniably beautiful passages as well.

The 'Sun Music' period, from approximately 1965 to 1971, marks the beginning of the first major changes in Sculthorpe's style. In the orchestral work Sun Music I (1965) he largely avoided the use of traditional melodic and harmonic constructs altogether, focussing instead on a 'sound mass' construction that juxtaposed unusual brass and string textures as a means of creating a coherent and evocative composition. Given the title, many interpreted the music as evoking a sun-drenched, bleak, and hostile Australian outback, and the work became Sculthorpe's first major success and confirmed, to the public at least, the appearance of a compositional voice that could represent the 'Australian' experience. It also gained Sculthorpe a contract with London-based music publishers, Faber Music.

Other works in the 'Sun Music' series were quite different, and reflected the more important, and long-lasting, influences that arose from Sculthorpe's study of the music of Bali and Japan. Under the influence of the music of these cultures, he experimented with different uses for melody, harmony, and rhythm, and different ways to create structure within his music. The results were often startling when compared with his earlier works: Sun Music III (1967), with its use of pentatonic scales, was significant in this respect, and embedded in its music are also compositional techniques and rhythmic devices that Sculthorpe had derived directly from transcriptions found in Colin McPhee's seminal musicological study The Music of Bali (1966).

The influence of Balinese music liberated and reinvigorated Sculthorpe's work but his earlier 'Irkanda' style was still present, and much of the music that followed often featured these two aspects of his developing style. String Quartet No. 8 (1968), for example, made use of the rhythms and sounds of Balinese rice-pounding rituals in its faster-paced sections, while the remaining movements were more clearly in the 'Irkanda' style. Similarly, Music for Japan (1970) concentrated almost entirely on the juxtaposition of amorphous and dissonant instrumental textures with long passages of drumming punctuated by tone clusters provided by the rest of the orchestra.

The next period in Sculthorpe's development begins with Rites of Passage (1972-73), his first major music-theatre work. Although it was meant to be premiered at the opening of the Sydney Opera House in 1973, circumstances delayed the first performances until 1974. This work marked the beginning of Sculthorpe's overt engagement with Aboriginal sources. In the case of Rites of Passage it was only Aboriginal text that informed part of the work; more important in many ways was The Song of Tailitnama, composed in 1974. In this work, Sculthorpe first made use of an Aboriginal melody, as well as the text, within the context of his own music. The music represented a fusion of many different techniques: a cyclic chant-like melody, fast-paced and obsessively repeated, based on just four notes, was supported by instrumental textures derived by combining a series of repetitive rhythmic cycles all of different lengths. The result was an exciting and invigorating musical experience that seemed to lift the veil of melancholy that had pervaded so much of Sculthorpe's earlier music.

From this point onwards he composed a wide variety of music all linked through his use of a combination of these Balinese, Japanese, and Indigenous Aboriginal resources as a way of positing his music, and thus Australian music in general, securely within the Pacific region and its culture. In this way, his intentions were to reflect Australia's geographical remoteness from Europe (and Britain) by distancing himself from European musical practices. Indeed, this becomes the prime motivation for Sculthorpe's later music, and it also exists as an essential dichotomy within much of that music.

From the mid-1980s onwards, Sculthorpe focused on the use of either quotations of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island melodies, or the composition of original melodies that reflected the general characteristics of those same Indigenous sources. It must be said, though, that the basic elements of his 'Irkanda' style are almost always present in some form or another in all of his music, and thus his distinctive compositional voice remains remarkably identifiable and consistent throughout his career. This has as much to do with his ability to manipulate musical materials in ways that become personal mannerisms, as it does with establishing a musical aesthetic that remains inviolate.

Over a career that spanned more than sixty years, Sculthorpe wrote almost four hundred works. It is impossible to mention all of them in a brief overview such as this but, on a personal level, I believe some of Sculthorpe's most significant music can be found in those works that have a particularly personal connection for him. He loved to write for performers he knew, whether they were individual soloists or entire ensembles, but he also responded to personal circumstances and experiences.

Two major early works are essentially prolonged expressions of frustration and grief after the death of his father in 1961. Irkanda IV (1961) contained music written earlier, but Sculthorpe revised and restructured it in order to create a suitable tribute to his father's memory; while String Quartet No. 6 (1965), although dedicated to the memory of Bonnie Drysdale (the first wife of the artist Russell Drysdale), who died in 1963, is full of anguished and expressive music that is also intended to be a reflection of both his own and his mother's sense of loss after the death of Joshua Sculthorpe.

Similarly, the two works Sculthorpe composed specifically for his fiftieth birthday in 1979, the Requiem for Cello Alone, and Mangrove for orchestra, were both deeply personal statements. The solo cello work used the format of Latin Requiem Mass as the basis for its structure, and text from various movements of the Mass (although unheard in this instrumental setting) offers insight into aspects of Sculthorpe's own sense of spirituality and his beliefs. It frequently juxtaposes plainchant melody with his own idiomatic melodic and harmonic style, while simultaneously making use of a wide variety of playing techniques on the cello to create an expressive and emotionally convincing work.

The same could be said for Mangrove, but perhaps even more so. Sculthorpe's own program notes for the work are allusive, but when one hears the music it soon becomes clear that the search for any literal meaning in the title is largely irrelevant. The music speaks primarily of, and for, Sculthorpe himself. It clearly had special meaning for him, and is a synthesis of many aspects of his mature compositional style. The use of bird-sounds (created by the string instruments), and original chant-like melodies, along with the quotation of a Japanese saibara (court music) melody as source material, all combine with his own musical vocabulary to produce a work that represents a particularly personal aesthetic vision. The chant-like music in the opening is striking enough, with the brass instruments playing interlocking patterns of rapid and repetitive rhythmic fragments that create a relentless, ritualistic atmosphere, aided by the addition of drumming that brings the section to a climax. However, the most impressive music is heard in the section that follows, where the saibara melody, known as Ise-No-Umi, is played in Sculthorpe's fuori di passo style. Here the melody is played by the cello section, but while about one third of the celli play the melody as written, the remaining instruments play slightly 'out of step', or out of rhythmic time, with each other. The resulting heterophony, if performed correctly, creates an effect akin to the acoustic delay experienced in large resonant spaces such as cathedrals. The result is haunting and richly evocative: it sounds simultaneously both ancient and modern, and the music achieves enormous emotional gravitas when Sculthorpe brings the fuori di passo passage back in the final section of the work where it is powerfully performed by the low brass. Mangrove remains, I believe, one Sculthorpe's most important works.

Kakadu (1988), on the other hand, is perhaps one of Sculthorpe's most popular and most typical works from his later period. Yet its composition was almost accidental. Approached by Emmanuel Papper, a Professor of Anaesthesiology at the University of Miami, to write an orchestral work as a birthday gift for Papper's wife, Sculthorpe initially refused the offer, citing he was too busy. However, ultimately impressed and touched by the depth of Papper's love for his wife, Sculthorpe finally agreed to compose the work. The result is no mere token gesture: the use of melodic ideas derived from Aboriginal sources, sections of urgent drumming and Balinese rhythmic devices, as well as the prolonged explosion of ecstatic bird sounds at the centre of the work, all combined to form a sustained expression of not only Sculthorpe's own particular voice but of what he felt about the spiritual power inherent in the landscapes of Northern Australia.

Sculthorpe was particularly drawn to the string quartet form: he wrote eighteen works for that combination (although only Quartets 6 to 18 are published) and they invariably are representative of his most personal statements and aesthetic philosophies. Quartets 7 to 9 see him experimenting with form and various compositional techniques, while Quartets 10 through 15 demonstrate Sculthorpe's confident control of his own stylistic approach. The late quartets can be seen to be not only reflective, of looking back on the past and on love and the value of long-term friendships (String Quartet No. 17), but they also represent his anger and frustration with widespread injustices in the world (String Quartet No. 16), and the current state of the natural environment and its ecology (String Quartet No. 18). In this respect, there is no lessening of intensity in the emotional impact of these later works: rather, there is an increase in the confidence with which his personal thoughts might be openly expressed through his music.

Two final works deserve, I believe, special mention. Memento Mori (1993) is, in some ways, Sculthorpe's own 'Song of the Earth' and, as in the Requiem for Cello Alone, he again juxtaposed European plainchant melody with music in his own style to structure a work that is lament for what could happen to our planet Earth if the natural environment is destroyed rather than protected and nurtured. The work is unusual in that it is one of the few written in this later period that is slow in tempo throughout. Similarly, Sculthorpe's idiomatic use of pitch centres in his music, where D represents 'death' and E represents 'eternity', for example, is at its most poignant here: the work begins with a drone on D supporting long melodic iterations of the Dies Irae melody, but ends on Eb, a tonal centre rarely found in Sculthorpe's entire output. Clearly this pitch centre has symbolic importance here, as the final Eb is located midway between D and E as if Sculthorpe were suggesting that the world is balanced at a tipping point, and that the future could go either way if the planet's environmental problems remain unresolved.

The Requiem for chorus, orchestra and didjeridu was composed in 2003, and was first performed around the time of Sculthorpe's 75th birthday in 2004. At forty minutes in duration, the Requiem is one of his last major compositions: it is in two large-scale sections, the second of which is dominated by the 'Maranoa Lullaby', an Aboriginal melody from the Maranoa region of Queensland that had been transcribed by Dr. H. O. Lethbridge in the 1930s. Sculthorpe had first heard the melody (in Lethbridge's transcription) as a student in Melbourne in the late 1940s, and yet it makes no appearance in his own music until almost fifty years later. The Lullaby melody first appears in the 'Canticle' section of the Requiem, and it subsequently forms the emotional heart of the entire work. It seems clear that Sculthorpe placed much emphasis on the Requiem as not only a summation of his own career, but it is also quite likely that he contemplated his own mortality whilst composing it. That he felt that it was especially personal to him is evidenced by the dedication of the work to the memory of his parents.

I worked for Peter as his music assistant for several years, and I once asked him if he, as some authors occasionally do, ever wanted to write a work under a pseudonym and create something completely unlike his other music. His revealing reply was that he sometimes thought about it but whenever he tried to do something like that he always found that he returned to writing the music he loved, and that it sounded just like his other music. In this sense, Peter Sculthope was his music, and the music was him. I believe it will remain so after his death: while his music will always be seen and heard as being representative of a particularly personal vision of Australia, it will also be understood as being a vivid portrait of the man himself.

AMC resources

Peter Sculthorpe - AMC profile (biography, works, events, recordings, articles)
'Peter Sculthorpe - a composer in Australia' - a feature article on Resonate by Andrew Ford (11 August 2014)
Tributes for Peter Sculthorpe (1929-2014) - a news article on Resonate (10 August - includes a list of links to obituaries and other articles)
CDs of Scuthorpe's music and MP3s of Sculthorpe's music available through the AMC (AMC Shop)
Peter Sculthorpe, String quartet no. 16 - music resource kit by Lorraine Milne (AMC Shop)
Sculthorpe: an icon of Australian music - music resource kit by Graeme Skinner (AMC Shop)
'Something about Peter - Peter Sculthorpe at 80' - insights and observations by Sculthorpe's friends, colleagues and collaborators (Resonate 27 April 2009)

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